The West Will Have to Compromise on Syria (Schmidt)

Søren Schmidt writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

Syria is neither Egypt nor Libya – and the conflict can therefore not be solved as it was in Egypt and Libya respectively.

The conflict in Syria worsens with each day that passes, and by now more than 20,000 people have been killed. At the same time, the parties are more keenly opposed than ever. The regime will have to go in the long run, but nobody knows how to get rid of it and get started on a democracy.

In Egypt, Mubarak was defeated by the mobilization of large masses of people demonstrating in Tahrir Square. In the confrontation between the regime and the masses of people, it was the regime that blinked first. The military quite simply did not have the stomach to beat back so many people, and in one fell swoop the regime’s authority vanished.

In Libya, Gaddafi was so isolated in his own country that the Libyans were able to defeat him militarily with a little help from the West.

But neither of these solutions can be applied in Syria, for two reasons.

First of all, the situation in Syria is a proper civil war between the country’s Sunni majority (65%) and the Alawi minority (10%) that the Assad clan belongs to; while the remaining minorities (Christians, Druze, Kurds and Shia: 25%) either support the regime or keep themselves on the sidelines. Since the conflict can not be described, as it was in Egypt or Libya, only as a conflict between the regime and the people, but also between two parties, each of which represents an important social force, the opposition is not able to challenge the regime through mass mobilization.

The close cooperation between the Syrian opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Saudi-Arabia has only worsened the problem and reinforced the Alawites perception that they are fighting with their backs to the wall. Add to this that the opposition has not been receptive to the desire of the Syrian Kurds to have their particular non-Arabic identity respected and, finally, that the opposition has failed to formulate a policy that would rally the urban middle class to its cause. Therefore mass mobilization will not be what topples the regime in Damascus.

The alternative to mass mobilization is a long, arduous fight to defeat the regime by military means. However, without outside help this will become a lengthy affair, since the regime has significant resources and a strong will to fight back. An external intervention force would also most probably have to count on being attacked by Alawite militias, while at the same time having to defeat the regime’s forces.

But that is not all: Syria is an important link in the so-called resistance alliance, which in addition to Syria consists of Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in a deterrence alliance against Israel. Syria’s alliance partners will therefore do whatever they can to prevent pro-Israel, Western powers from taking out an important link in this alliance.

The diplomatic ad hos group of countries, the so-called “Friends of Syria,” – did not want participation by Iran, and has instead embraced traditional foes of Iran like Saudi-Arabia and Qatar. This has, naturally, reinforced the Iranian perception that the fight against Assad is also a fight against Iran. While the West sees the fight against Assad as a fight for democracy, the Iranian regime see it rather as a geo-political fight against them. For this reason, a military solution cannot break the Gordian knot either. At least not without laying most of Syria waste in the process.

In this situation there seem to be two possibilities. Either the parties can continue the current civil war, and when exhausted eventually, perhaps many years hence, agree that a compromise would be better – or they can reach that same compromise now, before the destruction becomes more extensive, the number of dead increases further and the sectarian hatred becomes too entrenched.

However, this will demand some new thinking:

First of all, the Alawites (and the other minorities) must have guarantees that the fall of the regime will not be at their expense. Words and paper are easy, but the only actor who may credibly guarantee that minority interests will be secured after the fall of Assad is the Syrian military. Not the civilian security apparatus, but the part of the Syrian Army that still sees itself as a national institution and not just as an extension of the regime. The Syrian military should therefore be a party to any agreement concerning a transition from the present to a new government (as was also the case in Egypt and in Tunisia whose militaries also played an instrumental role in the transition). The only influence on the military apart from the present regime is Iran (and to some degree Russia).

Secondly, the West has to distance itself from the regional conflict between Iran and Israel, which has as its root cause that the Israelis continue to relate to their neighbors by means of military domination rather than finding a solution that all parties can live with. Said in another way: Israel has yet to accept the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state. As long as that remains the case, Israel will be seen as an enemy by Hamas and Hezbollah, which Iran for its part will insist on supporting. But there is nothing forcing the West to be hitched to the Israeli wagon in the conflict with Iran. After all, the West wants democratization in the Middle East and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The conflict between Israel and Iran ought therefore not to be allowed to hinder the inclusion of Iran in the attempt to find a solution for Syria.

The Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, has recently suggested that Egypt, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Iran get together to find a solution to the Syrian tragedy. The West ought to support Morsi’s initiative and replace romantic, revolutionary notions with a pragmatic approach to the Syrian people’s wish for democracy, and at the same time decouple its policy from Israel’s self-inflicted conflicts with its regional neighbors.

Søren Schmidt is Associate Professor at Aalborg University in Denmark

Posted in Syria | 17 Responses | Print |

17 Responses

  1. If Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran find a solution for Syria, it will likely not be something that benefits the Kurds, since Turkey and Iran both have problems with Kurds. But if a new Syrian Sunni regime tries to re-take the part of Syria that the Kurds are controlling, they’ll meet with resistance. And a forceful crackdown on Syrian Kurds could frighten other minorities.
    Due to the fact that many groups are involved in the Syrian mess, the fighting could continue even if Assad disappeared.

  2. As far as I can imagine every person in the Syrian military has been killing either the rebels for quite a long time already or has joined the rebels. I would think that the idea that there is such a thing as Syrian military forces who could be seen as inpartial and trustworthy enough by the different factions to earn the trust of the minorities that they will be protected if there is some kind of agreement has long since past.
    By the way who was in power in Lebanon in 1975? Who holds power today? If you ask a Lebonese Christian, Did the Christians lose the civil war? What would be his or her likely resposne? From how many areas were Christians ethnically cleansed? If it is a lot I would think that most Christians might think that they lost. If it is not a lot then perhaps they can claim that they did not lose.

    I wonder if anyone in Iran has considered the idea of building bridges to the opposition in Syria so that even IF Assad falls they would be able to maintain some good will in the country among the Sunni majority?

    • I agree. The relationship of the Syrian regular army to Assad is much different than the Egyptian military to the Egyptian nation. This article seems like it is putting forward that does not match the reality of the situation. Also, there were huge demostrations against Assad at first. Granted they did no encompass a big cross-sectarian spread, but it was the Assad government – not necessaril the splits in the opposition – that broke up the large protests with rifles, motors and armored trucks.

  3. “While the West sees the fight against Assad as a fight for democracy …”
    Interesting thought. Sort of like how the West invaded Iraq to bring Democracy ?
    This presupposes that Westerners cannot follow complicated story lines.

    “Either the parties can continue the current civil war, and when exhausted eventually …”
    Understanding who the parties to this conflict are is key to understanding how long this could go on.
    This is not an exclusively Syrian-vs-Syrian fight.

    “The West ought to … replace romantic, revolutionary notions with a pragmatic approach …”
    Again, understanding who the parties to this conflict are is key to understanding what would be pragmatic.

  4. “In Libya, Gaddafi was so isolated in his own country that the Libyans were able to defeat him militarily with a little help from the West.”

    A little help? How about the 30,000 bombs dropped, which certainly caused casualties equivalent to the hyped unsubstantiated number of 20,000 in Syria.

    • Good catch. I’m sorry to be so hard on the guest columnist, but the piece is a long series of dubious facts and suppositions.

  5. What is too often missed or glossed over is the indirect influence of Israel, so the second piece of beneficial new thinking becomes critical.

    Sadly, it takes quite a bit more than being recognized to be able to address this underlying, aggravating condition. And the forces deployed against even such a recognition are substantial.

    In fairness, a equitable and enduring peace between Israel and the Palestinians will not solve all the regional problems. (As the above proposition will predictably be painted by its opponents, preferring indefinite foot-to-the-throat domination). But until the situation is properly recognized and fairly reconciled, the volatility of the region will continue…..every bit as indefinitely.

  6. OK, let’s say that a comprehensive peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians is, as Schmit writes, Plan A for bringing about a decent outcome in Syria.

    I humbly suggest that it might be worthwhile to work on a Plan B, on the off chance that Plan A is not immediately forthcoming.

  7. Soren, thanks for your interesting and cogent analysis of the Syrian situation. I wonder how the Syrian minorities will feel protected by an army that will undergo fundamental change in a post-Alawite Syria. I do have one question about your description of Israel versus the resistance alliance. You state the problem is the way Israel relates to them militarily. Do you think it’s possible that the positions of Hamas and Hezbollah concerning the near term or far term goal of eliminating Israel may also inform their relations? And perhaps the grotesque anti-Semitic rhetoric of their leaders informs the relationship? You seem to show an appreciation of the concerns of Syrian minorities. Perhaps you can understand that when the head of Hezbollah calls Jews “pigs” and “dogs” and hails their destruction this discourages peaceful resolution. Also it seems Iran has little interest in resolving the crisis and has done their best to support intransigence. Resistance yes, but perhaps more for Iran’s interest than Palestinian. Perhaps absolving either side just helps perpetuate the destructive dynamic and Palestinian suffering that has been in process for so long.

  8. the Libyans were able to defeat him militarily with a little help from the West.

    You’re being more than a little disingenuous are you not? Suppression of air defenses, no-fly zones, missile bombardments, and close air support don’t come under the heading of “a little help” they were what won the war for the rebels.


  9. “In Libya, Gaddafi was so isolated in his own country that the Libyans were able to defeat him militarily with a little help from the West”

    IMO,Gaddafi was defeated with a big help from the west because Lybia is an oil rich country.
    The compromise from the west is understandable because Syria is an olive oil rich country.
    Democracy has nothing to do with both cases.

  10. The author concludes with a call for a “pragmatic approach”. Great – what specifically are those steps? The transition to democracy that Schmidt and most everyone else craves will require the Assad clan to relenquish power. The idea of elections and a transition was already pursued aggresively, notably by Russia a year ago, and it went nowhere. Nothing in the dynamics has changed.

    I really get tired of people posturing as new-thinking, above-the-fray peace makers, ignoring the fact that a negotiated solution was desperately and furiously pursued by Kofi Anan for 16 months. If Assad was amenable to a peaceful resolution, he would have responded very differently to peaceful protests.

    Finally, Schmidt’s diatribe about Israel shows that he is every inch an idealogue, hardly a pragmatist. I don’t necessarily take issue with Schmidt’s views, but the notion that a resolution to Syria is tied to the Palestinean problem, or support for Israel in its standoff with Iran, is irrelevant axe grinding.

    If Schmidt has some fresh ideas for shifting entrenched positions on Syria, by all means please share them.

  11. “In Libya, Gaddafi was so isolated in his own country that the Libyans were able to defeat him militarily with a little help from the West.”

    This statement is quite inaccurate.

    After some initial rebel success, the Qaddafi regime was driving back the rebels and closing in on Benghazi. Without the foreign intervention, the rebels might very well have lost the civil war, or at least have been pushed into a marginal insurgency.

    In fact, the quoted statement makes nonsense of the entire supposed logic of the intervention, which was ostensibly to prevent the possible imminent massacre of the rebels at the hands of a victorious and vengeful government.

  12. ‘a little help from the west’. Did Americans watch the news? The EU sent half its air-force to blow Gadaffi away when they realised that the US was footing the bill for the turket-shoot of the century. It was like stone age man versus the starship enterprise. Blair met Gadaffi in a tent, the UK was ready to become friends with an axis-of-evil power!!!!!
    Hypocrisy is going to destroy the human race, alas…

  13. To say the rebels (in fact terrorists) in Libya Defeated Qaddafi with little help from the West is absurd and absolutely untrue. The West bombed Qaddafi’s troops to pieces leaving the rabble we called freedom fighters, free to do whatever they liked. Burning, looting rape and untold damage to the infrastructure of the Country. This Country is now in ruins and is a place of fear and despair.

    • Your view of history is as unfactual as your characterization of the state of Libya today. The West & rebels did not destroy the infrastructure, oil revenues are already soaring. The central government is weak, but the place is relatively peaceful and the future is promising.

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